Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mary Rinehart, a new favourite

I have a new love, thanks to my Aldiko eBook reader. Mary Roberts Rinehart (read about her here!) is a pioneer in mystery writing, the Agatha Christie of the US, or so Wikipedia says. I had never heard of her, of course. Although reading her books I definitely get a familiar Hitchcocky feeling, which I suppose either means that Hitchcock was inspired partly by Rinehart, or that I've seen something of hers filmed. Well, it's not one of the four books I've read so far, so I think it's probably the former, and to be fair it's really only the first book I read, The After House, that feels really Hitchcocky.

Let's get some things straight first. We don't read these books for the plots. They're not - so far - stellar, although maybe they'll pick up in her later books. We read these for the awesome timewarp they are, for the early Americanisms, for the history. I love it! I've bookmarked (a handy feature of the app, I might add) about a million pages. And I have to go through all these bookmarks and write about them, this is so me and for the love of God how I'd like the blog to be about something that is me and not just lame microposts to keep up with what I'm reading. Ahem.

I started with The After House, which I downloaded almost immediately when trying out the Aldiko app, because of a favourable synopsis. It was so good I downloaded several more, and decided I wanted to read them in some sort of chronological order after that, to see how/if her writing changes and develops. So from a book written in 1914 I moved on to The Man in Lower Ten, from 1906, her first book. Then I took The Circular Staircase, from 1908, and just now The Case of Jennie Brice, from 1913. (I go through these quickly, and if I don't hurry up with this post now I'll end up writing one post about all the Rinehart books that the Aldiko can offer, and that would be dull.) Anyway, I would say I can see a definite difference in her writing, even with only these four books. Her earliest books have sketchier basic plots, by which I mean that the fundamental idea seems a little far-fetched. She throws in a lot of small details, red herrings and ends-that-might-be-loose, so at least once per books she has her main character sum it all up with a mental recap, like "where is the murder weapon? who is the man in the brown hat? where is the letter? why is X so frightened?" and so on, and after that she can pootle on with the story, knowing all the ends and being able to pull them together nicely. There is less of this abundance of questions in the later books, and we'll just have to see how she does in the ones from the 1920s, that I have yet to read.

A lot of old detective stories (or other literature) stand the test of time, remain popular and very well known, even though they can contain elements that shock modern readers. The big problem with Rinehart, for modern readers, is the casual racism prevalent in her books. Not prevalent because she makes a point of it really, prevalent because society was like that. No matter who you were and where you turned, there it was. It's the type of racism that speaks fondly of the loyal black servant, even putting up with his or her silly Negro quirks, and has no problem with dropping the word darky (or worse) into a conversation. Despite my instinctive recoil at a lot of this, it's interesting. It's so clear how insidious and hard to tackle this type of segregation was - and is! - because despite the definite cast-in-iron segregation in place, there is a recognition that the black people are people. This is the true cruelty of it, they're people, but they don't count. I have to say that Rinehart is a bit divided and muddled on the subject, too, I'll get to that. Nevertheless, it dates the books terribly. The class society of British Golden Age detective stories is somehow more palatable to us, and in particular Americans of course can view it through the historical quaintness filter - something they of course cannot do with segregation. For example there is a servant called Thomas in The Circular Staircase, who is chided for being superstitious and foolish - to the point where I thought he was disliked. I mean, what am I to make of this sentence?

it was always my belief that a negro is one part thief, one part pigment, and the rest superstition

What the hell??? Yet later it's

Poor Thomas! He had the faculty - found still in some old negroes, who cling to the traditions of slavery days - of making his employer's interests his. I miss him sorely; pipe-smoking, obsequious, not over-reliable, kindly old man!
Such bizarre inconsequential thinking! In The After House there is another black servant, prone to sea-sickness, who is referred to blithely as both "nigger" and "darky" at least once per word. Williams is not liked, because his first loyalty is to the boat's owner, Turner, whom he supplies with whiskey on the more-or-less sly. The hero cum narrator, Leslie, is

answerable to George Williams, the colored butler, for the various liquors served on deck.The work was easy, and the situation rather amused me. After an effort or two to bully me, one of which resulted in my holding him over the rail until he turned gray with fright, Williams treated me as an equal, which was gratifying [sic].[ ... ]

"And Williams? I am to submit to his insolence?"

She stopped and turned, and the smile faded.

"The next time, " she said, "you are to drop him!"

Gives you a bad taste in the mouth, doesn't it, despite knowing that Williams is doing something nasty?

There is reference to the colour a black person turns when they pale in The Man in Lower Ten too, which makes it obvious that there was plenty of interaction with black people. Despite this being a relatively multicultural town and all that I don't know if I've ever had the opportunity (so to speak) of seeing a black person growing pale from stress or shock, whereas I certainly have seen white people in similar straits. Rinehart has though - they knew the people they kept down so hard. It's rather terrifying. I end with this charmer:

The perspiring porter was trying to be six places at once: somebody has said that Pullman porters are black so they won't show the dirt, but they certainly show the heat.
Nonetheless, I have a lot of tolerance when I read vintage detective fiction. Since it's not "real" I can put on my quaintness filter, distance myself and enjoy the historical trip. References to mail that comes three times a day in town, expressions like "Pittsburg without smoke wouldn't be Pittsburg, any more than New York without prohibition would be New York", how US society is already in 1906 starting to be all about the car:

I can't walk. I haven't walked two consecutive blocks in three years. Automobiles have made legs mere ornaments - and some not even that.
I loved how the descriptions of the tiring, chaotic, classless travel of the sleeper trains, with men and women mixed in a car, trying to maintain some sort of modesty and propriety, and the conductor's comment:

The railroad company is responsible for transportation, not for clothes, jewelry and morals. If people want to be stabbed and robbed in the company's cars, it's their affair. Why didn't you sleep in your clothes? I do.
I love that the grand house in The Circular Staircase is lit by electricity, but that the electric company

shuts up shop and goes home at midnight: when one has a party, I believe it is customary to fee the company, which will drink hot coffee and keep awake a couple of hours longer.
Oh, and on the subject of electricity:

All are not electricians who wear rubber gloves.
I thrill at the results of a search of the ship in The After House:

Much curious salvage I found under mattresses and beneath bunks: a rosary and a dozen filthy pictures under the same pillow; more than one bottle of whiskey; and even, where it had been dropped in the haste of flight, a bottle of cocaine. The bottle set me to thinking: had we a "coke" fiend on board, and if we had, who was it?
I love finding out, in The Case of Jennie Brice, that cocaine was also used as an anesthetic during operations, and that, in Pittsburg at least, the word "full" was used for "drunk" - which is amusing since that's the Swedish word for the condition. Or this little gem, when a frightened woman opens a door:

I thought it no harm to carry an old razor of Mr. Pitman's with the blade open and folded back on the handle, the way the colored people use them, in my left hand.

That's fascinating, in a small way. I'd love to ask someone about that, but I have no idea where to begin!

Rinehart is also a big romantic, and all her books have at least one young couple who have to get together at the end. Sometimes they are the main characters, sometimes more of a sideshow. She can be very emotional and heart-felt, more so in later books.

And sitting there in the darkness, I went over my own life again. After all, it had been my own life; I had lived it; no one else had shaped it for me. And if it was cheerless and colorless now, it had had its big moments. Life is measured by big moments.

And here, there, and everywhere, efficient, normal, and so lovely that it hurt me to look at her, was Elsa.

Okay, I'll end with some quick story synopsis(es). Then I think I'm ready to post this.

The After House: A young medical graduate is recovering from serious illness and decides, on more or less a whim, to sign up as a shipmate on a luxury yacht embarking on a pleasure cruise, in order to regain his strength. Once out on the water the tensions among the passengers becomes all too clear. The owner is a drunk, with violent and jealous tendencies. One night, three people are murdered, and the killer is obviously someone among the survivors.

The Man in Lower Ten: A young (see the theme?) lawyer is taking some important papers to back to Washington DC from Pittsburgh. Annoyingly, someone else takes his sleeper compartment, lower ten, so he has to sleep in a different one. In the morning, the man in lower ten is murdered, and our lawyer's clothes and papers are gone.

The Circular Staircase: A middle-aged spinster tells the story of the most scary and thrilling summer of her life, when she took a summer residence in the country, only to spend every night in terror of an intruder who seems to be able to enter no matter how much the household bars the doors. One night a shot was heard and they discovered the owner's son, dead, at the foot of the circular staircase. To her horror she starts to wonder if her niece and nephew are involved.

The Case of Jennie Brice: Another middle-aged woman, but widow, not spinster. Formerly of good family mrs Pitman now scrapes a living running a boarding-house in Pittsburg, or, rather, in Allegheny, which was an independent area at the time. Every year in spring the river rises and floods the lower parts of all the houses. During this time, one of mrs Pitman's boarders disappears, and the odd behaviour of her husband convinces his landlady that he killed her.

Oh, allow me to make a review of eBook reading aswell. It's surprisingly easy on the eyes, not at all bad. The scanning process has sometimes corrupted the words though, with some amusing results, like the name Burns becoming Bums. How I giggled. It makes it a little difficult for me to judge the plots, because when I suddenly realise I don't get how Rinehart got to where she is in the solution, I'm unsure if it's because I'm reading like an eejit or if something got lost in the transfer. But anyway, I'm pleased. I might try reading something I already know later to check up on those defects easier.

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